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'Gypsy' won't disappoint fans of musical

If you thought your mother was bossy and demanding, wait until you meet Mama Rose.

The star of the musical "Gypsy," which plays this afternoon at the Gallo Center for the Arts for the final time, does things only one way: her way. She's pushy, loud and obnoxious and is incapable of understanding the word "no."

But as played by the wonderful Kathy Halenda in Phoenix Entertainment's slick touring production, you can't help loving her all the same. Halenda reveals the wounded heart under Mama Rose's fierce facade and shows that she's more misguided than mean.

Like Ethel Merman, who created the role, Halenda also has a huge voice and knows how to belt out a song. Her renditions of showstoppers "Everything's Coming up Roses" and "Rose's Turn" won't disappoint this show's many fans.

Featuring peppy songs by Jule Styne, witty lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an engaging story by Arthur Laurents, the 1960 Tony-nominated show centers on Rose's drive to push her two daughters into show business whether they like it or not.

Director Sam Viverito's staging offers a good balance of spectacle and drama and never drifts too far into camp. While the production drags at times in the lengthy first act on the vaudeville circuit, it picks up after intermission when the story moves to the bump-and-grind world of burlesque.

Missy Dowse is sympathetic as Rose's ugly duckling daughter who transforms from ignored background dancer Louise into the famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee. Pretty and waifish, she has a vulnerable quality that makes you want to protect and encourage her. Her version of "Little Lamb" is touching.

Ruby Lewis contributes a spunky attitude in the much smaller role of June, Rose's favorite daughter and a skilled dancer and actress. Cute child actress Claire Norden wins audiences' hearts doing cartwheels, high kicks and splits as June in her younger years.

Playing Rose's kindly but kicked-around boyfriend Herbie is the staid Nicholas Hamel. I've never seen a Herbie quite as stiff and repressed as Hamel but it works well and provides a nice contrast to Rose's manic personality.

Some of the biggest applause of Friday's opening night performance came for the colorful striptease trio featuring Loriann Freda as butterfly-loving Tessie Tura, Rachel Abrams as trumpet-playing Mazeppa and Maria Egler as lightbulb-clad Electra. Their hilarious song "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," performed in Paul F. Favini's delightfully over-the-top costumes, is a winner.

The six-member orchestra in the pit plays in tune and on time though it sounds a little thin and seems overly dominated by synthesizers.

Michael Hotopp's diverse sets include realistic-looking dressing rooms and houses as well as storybooklike illustrations. Charlie Morrison oversees the impressive lighting effects, which include using strobes to show the passage of time.

An artifact from a less cynical age, "Gypsy" treads lightly on the troubles between Mama Rose and her daughters and ends on a heartwarming note. The message seems to be that with compassion and forgiveness, you can survive almost anything, even a domineering parent.

To comment, click on the link with this story at modbee.com. Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.

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